In contrast to The Great War of 1914-1918, the Second World War had until January 1942 seen a marked absence of parades and displays. On 26th January 1942, those few who gathered in Belfast witnessed the spectacle of a large body of troops formed behind its colours. The Americans had arrived in Northern Ireland.
There was something of the old-time splendour of war in the sight as the men swung along behind the silken colours of the Stars and Stripes, borne beside the colours of the particular unit.
The crowd gathered in Belfast was small but the welcome was warm as American troops marched towards the railway station. Women and children dotted the route, keen to catch a glimpse of the exciting new arrivals. Those on the streets amounted to only a few hundred people in the neighbourhood around the docks. The early morning arrival of press, photographers and the police in the old Sailortown district alerted the locals.
Amid the stern conditions of modern war, there can be no vast, popular acclamations, no waving of banners, no emotional demonstrations. Besides, that is not the Ulster manner.
Major General Russell P. Hartle thanked the band of the Royal Ulster Rifles and shook hands with the Sergeant. Regimental Colours then came ashore. American units bring their Colours to the battlefield but they remain at a rear headquarters. One of regimental flags had crossed the Atlantic for a second time, having seen use by the same regiment in France in 1917.
The pair of Sergeants forming the Colours Party each had 9 years’ service and unblemished records. It was quite an honour to carry forth the Regimental Colours. When asked if he liked the idea of landing in Northern Ireland, one of the Sergeants told the Belfast Telegraph reporter:
I want to be wherever my outfit is.
The band then led the way as the first Company of soldiers made their way to the nearby railway station. They struck up marching tunes such as ‘Stars and Stripes Forever’, and ‘Liberty Bell’. As the soldiers marched along, some local girls linked arms with them and gave them a warm welcome to Ulster.
British soldiers loaded kit bags onto lorries. The Regimental Colours and the flag of the United States of America headed up the procession. A pair of Hawker Hurricane fighter planes dipped their wings overhead saluting the new arrivals.
Along the route, American soldiers halted from time to time. While they marked time, excited locals – women, children, and factory workers ran over to greet them.
“Did you bring James Cagney?”, inquired one youngster of a husky lad who looked as if he might be a lumberjack from the Maine woods. “No, we are not the Fighting 69th”, was the reply “but we’re the best outfit in the United States anyway”.
At the railway station, there was a brief respite for the soldiers. The band of the Royal Ulster Rifles played a selection of songs both Irish and American including ‘Washington Post’. One newly-arrived Private joked that the Irish seemed to know more American tunes than the soldiers did themselves. During intervals, bandsmen socialised with their new comrades. They swapped local cigarettes for Lucky Strikes and other American brands. A few envious glances were cast towards young Americans puffing on cigars. To a British soldier, that was the type of activity associated with a millionaire or a Prime Minister.
One such cigar smoker was a Lieutenant-Colonel with a colourful career. He had taken part in the hunt for legendary Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa before serving as a Sergeant in The Great War of 1914-1918. Between puffs on his American cigar, he spoke to a reporter from the Belfast Telegraph newspaper:
Yes, I’m glad to be on Northern Irish soil, but I’ve only one reason for being here. We want to get this war over, and we want to lose no time about it. It seems that since I was taken out of the cradle I’ve been in uniform. This time we want to make sure that wars are finished forever. I like the army all right, but I don’t see why we should have to carry on fighting wars. This time we are going to finish it – make no mistake about that.
N.A.A.F.I. Volunteers and a Y.M.C.A. Canteen prepared food and drink for the new arrivals. The sandwiches, meat pies, sausage rolls, chocolate, candy, and coffee gratefully received, drew thanks in an American drawl:
Your hospitality is just gran’. This sure is the best meal I’ve had since I left. I guess a’m gonna like you Irish.
The atmosphere was lively and further roused by the sights and sounds of a flight of Supermarine Spitfires overhead. There were laughs and jokes among the men and officers, as they ate and prepared for the off.
One officer raised a laugh by offering a pie, with the remark “have a bun?” “That”, replied a colleague, “is a pie, a meat pie”, whereupon its owner looked at it as though it were a complete deception.
Major-General V.H.B. Majendie (General Officer Commanding Northern Ireland District) paid a short visit to the awaiting soldiers as they prepared to board trains to camps across Ulster. He chatted informally to many of them, showing a keen interest in their uniform and kit. Americans impressed the general with demonstrations of their gas masks and automatic rifles. The Americans were greatly excited to meet the Major-General and gave him a warm welcome during his hour-long stay.
They are a fine-looking lot of men.
As well as chatting to the men and inspecting equipment, Majendie took time to inspect an improvised kitchen. It was hastily set up in a corrugated iron siding shed in the goods yard. Despite the rough and ready conditions, the troops were complimentary of the food and in particular of the coffee. One stated:
[It] might well have been made in the good old U.S.A.
Perhaps unsure of what culinary treats awaited in his destination port, one Sergeant spoke with Major-General Majendie through mouthfuls of a hamburger, which he had preserved throughout the Atlantic crossing.
Throughout the day, more and more batches of troops arrived at the railway station goods yard. As news spread, the crowds grew too. One young boy appeared waving an American flag, which drew cheers from the troops. All the while, young women leaned out of the upstairs windows of houses and shops, greeting the soldiers with wisecracks and Irish witticisms; a warm Ulster welcome for Johnny Doughboy from his Irish Rose.
Before the arrival of the American Expeditionary Force in Ulster, soldiers of the British Army helped set up camps for their new Ally in the war in Europe.
As the first elements of the U.S. Army arrived in cities, towns, and villages throughout Northern Ireland, locals remarked on their good looks and uniforms.
Mary Pat Kelly is an Irish-American writer and filmmaker. In the 1990s, she researched the American Military's time in Northern Ireland for her book and accompanying documentary 'Home Away From Home: The Yanks In Ireland'.
Dr. Simon Topping is a lecturer at the University of Plymouth. He has undertaken extensive research into the social, and political impact of the time spent in Ulster by GIs for his latest book 'Northern Ireland, the United States, and the Second World War'.